How conservatives are trying to kill immigration reform

This morning, GOP Senator John Cornyn unveiled his much-anticipated amendment to the Senate “gang of eight” compromise — the most ambitiouseffort yet to move the bill to the right by stiffening border security requirements. Advocates have been looking to Cornyn’s amendment for clues as to what mainstream conservatives who are ostensibly open to reform will demand in exchange for supporting it.

The details of the Cornyn amendment are not encouraging. It looks like it is designed for the express purpose of killing the bill.

First, the details. The Cornyn amendment — which Marco Rubio, a key voice on reform, has made positive noises about — would harden the “trigger” that must be achieved before the path to citizenship can kick in. It does this by mandating that the Secretary of Homeland Security “may not adjust the status of aliens who have been granted registered provisional immigrant status” — those who, under the Senate bill, would be granted legal status at the outset, and would have to wait 10 years for the path to citizenship to start – until a number of conditions have been met.

Cornyn’s amendment would require that nine years and six months after immigration reform becomes law, the HHS secretary must submit a report to the president and Congress that, “under penalty of perjury,” that states that “full situational awareness” and “operational control” of the southern border has been achieved; that the mandatory employment verification system is operational; and that a biometric entry and exit data system has been implemented at all designated airports and seaports. If DHS cannot attest that these conditions have been met, undocumented immigrants cannot get green cards or embark on the path to citizenship.

Here’s how that differs from the current Senate bill. The gang of eight compromise also stipulates that “e-verify” and the entry-exit system be set up before citizenship can happen. But it does not tie meeting border security metrics directly to citizenship as a condition for it. Rather, the Senate bill directs DHS to come up with a plan to secure the border and allots billions of dollars to carry it out. The Senate bill also sets as a goal that by the fifth year, 90 percent of border crossers must be being apprehended and 100 percent of the border must be being surveilled. If that doesn’t happen, a border commission is set up and another $2 billion is allotted for border security.

In the Senate bill, failure to meet those security metrics would not nix the path to citizenship. By contrast, in the Cornyn amendment, if the 90 percent apprehension and 100 percent surveillance metrics are not being met, citizenship doesn’t happen.

Here’s why, in the view of immigration advocates, this constitutes a stealth effort to kill reform: It creates the possibility of manipulation of those metrics with the express purpose of killing citizenship.

In other words, if citizenship is dependent on those metrics being met, in 10 years a Republican Congress could redirect border security money elsewhere for the explicit purpose of falling short of achieving them, according to Frank Sharry, the head of the pro-immigration America’s Voice. Or a DHS secretary appointed by a Republican president could simply decline to find that the metrics have been met, he adds. In this scenario, Sharry concludes, you could have come very close to achieving those metrics, but if you fall just short of 100 percent surveillance or 90 percent apprehension in just one sector of the border (something that could be engineered deliberately), it could nix citizenship for millions.

“It’s not that these metrics can’t be achieved,” Sharry says. “It’s that they would now be subject to manipulation so that they deliberately won’t be achieved.”

The Senate “gang of eight” bill already gives conservatives much of what they say they want. It requires billions to be spent on border security — and a plan to be drawn up to enforce it — years before citizenship happens. And it does contain triggers that citizenship is contingent upon – such as e-verify — that would enhance security. “The way to stop people from crossing the border, improving border security, is to make it harder for them to get jobs illegally,” Sharry says.

The problem is that the Cornyn amendment is very well designed to make it hard for Republicans not to support it. Senator Rubio has been insisting that the bill must be moved to the right to win over more Republicans; it’s an open question whether he’ll support Cornyn’s amendment. But Republicans who don’t embrace it may now find themselves exposed to criticism from the right for not supporting “hard triggers” as conditions for citizenship. The question of whether Rubio will ultimately embrace Cornyn’s changes is crucial, given that many Republicans are closely watching Rubio for cues, and given that Democrats have repeatedly said they are a non-starter.

Concludes Sharry: “Cornyn could very well destabilize the debate in a way that threatens it.”

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.
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Jamelle Bouie | June 12, 2013